There was once a man who lived in Sweden, Nathan Soderblom. He was a high achiever, a good student, a believer in Christ – and he eventually became and Archbishop in the Church; he actually won the Nobel Prize. He was effective, busy, sought after; he was a leader in his field.
However, having achieved the notoriety that comes with a certain kind of ambition, Soderblom went to the King of Sweden and asked him, “Your majesty – there is a little island off the coast of Sweden. A beautiful place. There is one little church, in a town with one street. There are only a few hundred people living on that island. Your majesty, I have grown weary, especially of my duties in Stockholm; now that I am nearing retirement; I would be so honored, as a retired ArchBishop, to offer myself as pastor, and shepherd, to that little congregation.”
The ArchBishop sat quietly, pensive and thoughtful, piously – waiting for the King to see what a humble offering of self and service the Archbishop happened to be making of himself.
The King smiled at the ArchBishop. His old friend. And the King took quite a while before speaking. The King finally said, “Oh yes – Lovely. Lovely. Truly, it is a lovely island. I know that place; I have been there. It has an ambiance. An atmosphere. A feeling. It is almost, for Sweden, like a piece of heaven. And you know – ArchBishop – those people on that island, they need a postman to carry the mail through town once a day. Ahhh . . . how I have thought it would be so nice to be that postman; how I would like to be the postman on that island.”
That is often how we interpret God’s call to us – and yes, even the most pious and professionally religious of us.
Of course The Carpenter comes calling in life – but it must be to the vision that I am carrying around in my own head. Certainly God would take note of the calling that I have imagined for myself; certainly God would know about “my island fantasy.”
A little conversation I might find myself having, “Of course, that is how I will know it is from God; the next call from God will be anything but more of the drudgery of a life grown stale or difficult.”
I sometimes think this is what folks mean when they say that they are spiritual but not very religious. In the “imaginations of our hearts” we create a tableau and then invite God to be our guest, the executive of our own version of peace.
Like the good ArchBishop we have walked the fence lines of our fields, we have found a break in the fence, and we can see that the grass is certainly greener on the other side.
“Ah yes, my friend. How I would like to no longer be King, how I too would put down my duties, and be the postman on that island.”
Jesus is stepping into the world of the disciples with a particular invitation.
“The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the Good News . . . turn around in our life and believe that this good thing is actually happening to you.”
This invitation is not the climbing of our own mountaintops. It is not the identification of our own fantasy island. It is actually a moment of crisis, but also a moment of opportunity. Repentance and belief are being planted like a flag in the midst of the daily drudgery. Following that flag will lead us into fields and forests that we cannot imagine.
At the outset, the beginning of the Gospel, we see a holy teacher out gathering his followers. Jesus is breaking a few Hellenistic, Greek, and Rabbinic, Hebrew, norms. What was expected is that the teacher would teach a bit, others listen a bit, and then the listeners might mull it over a while, and then decide if this teaching and this teacher were worth the trouble of following.
The locus of authority rested with the listener; it was more or less a buyers’ market when it came to following a teacher or a preacher in those days. But Jesus is breaking this pattern. Jesus does not wait for his followers; He goes and finds them. Obviously God is the pursuer. Heaven is declaring, “Ready or not here I come . . .” The time is now.
We know little about these first disciples. The first disciples were prosperous enough to have others working for them; to own and manage their own businesses. They were probably yeoman types; independent, yet well-off enough to have to pay the Roman tax. Obliged to pay the Temple tithes.
I have always found it a blessing to know so little about Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. I don’t have to wonder if they were “enough.” If they had enough intelligence, enough social capital, enough charisma, enough moral fiber, or enough of the “right stuff” to be sought out by God.
Really the only thing that we know they had “enough” of is that they could understand when something profound, and something of God, was happening in their midst. That is something they could do; recognize that God was near. And this gift, of knowing when the important thing is THE important thing, in that moment, is what set the course of the Western world and the entire fabric of our lives.
This particular moment with a teacher and a few followers set the course of human history.
The disciples don’t seem to be One Minute Managers; they don’t seem to have the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon, Andrew, James, and John don’t seem to have any of the outstanding merits that might place them at the top of some class of Who’s Who. There is really nothing that would recommend them as leaders of the most significant revolution of the Western World . . . except this – listening and following.
Standing beside the boats that contain their livelihood, the security and care of their families, these first followers recognize the moment of crisis and opportunity. They know enough to know that God is near. And they know enough to know the difference between a day-dream and reality.
They know enough to follow someone from one way of living into another way of living with God. It is something that cannot be managed, finessed, arranged to our own liking. It is an invitation that can only be accepted, and so they “left their nets.”
In my limited experience of following Jesus, no one truly follows The Carpenter from Nazareth while also carrying their “nets.” Something is always left behind.
The brave and bright German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it so well, “When Christ calls a person, he bids that person come and die.” Leaving what was and discovering what will be.
The rest of the Gospel, the rest of Jesus’ message, is simply a message that this is a death that we cannot live without; we will not save ourselves as we search for God’s heaven and Kingdom.
A great deal of what we call ourselves, or ours, in this world will be given away, and finally taken away. In order to find the Really Real, the reality of God, something of who we are, what we have been, will be left behind as we step into the Great Mystery of what Jesus is calling his Father’s Kingdom.
This profound and deep Mystery of God’s eternal friendship and love for us may only be received when we are turned from the preoccupation of creating our own heaven on earth; accepting the beautiful, yet sometimes crushing, truth that in order to follow The Carpenter into a real paradise, we must leave the nets that have been our safety in this world.
This is not our world, it is God’s. And every day we live and breathe in this borrowed place, there is one who is walking toward us; He says, “I know what you want. I know what you dream; but I have come for you. Lay it down. Lay down the safety of your nets, and come follow me.”